Before lending his voice to the man in black in Episodes IV, V, VI and III, of the Star Wars series, James Earl Jones was a pseudo-blaxploitation star. I say pseudo because classifying some of his films as blaxploitation is probably inaccurate. Many were just good movies that some people mistakenly throw into the blaxploitation genre.
What qualifies one film blaxploitation, and not another is subject to some interpretation. It’s also something a lot of people don’t understand.
This past weekend I told someone I knew that I had been writing posts about blaxploitation actors all month, and he reacted with a mild political diatribe about the actors not being exploited just by appearing in a movie, which is factually correct.
The exploitation comes via subject matter and marketing, not necessarily who is in the films.
Blaxploitation films were created and marketed with the goal of drawing in black audiences. The films were heavy on style, cultural experience, sweet music of the day, and in most cases, the inequality that existed, and some claim still exists, in America. In some ways, a good blaxploitation film might be considered a ghetto fairy tale, like SuperFly for example.
The trailers for these films usually dripped with visual swagger overdubbed with a narrator who was unafraid of slinging some street slang in his description.
In these films the actors weren’t necessarily exploited any more than other working actors, especially those in low-budget, independent films, who had to work hard for very little pay. That exploitation isn’t a black or white thing.
James Earl Jones appeared in several films in the 1970s featuring black casts, facing problems common in the black community of the day. While these films have some of the components of blaxploitation by way of the subject matter and the cast, the marketing separated them from a genre known primarily known for action films and B-movies.
Jones’s role as Rupert “Roop” Marshall, the garbage man who falls in love with a single welfare-mom with six kids in Harlem, in the movie Claudine (1974) is a captivating film that takes a deep look at the issues surrounding government assistance, and the struggles and shenanigans many had to go through to get by during tough times.
It has every element of a blaxploitation film until you get to the marketing of it. The trailer wasn’t designed specifically to appeal to a black audience. In fact, they went overboard in an effort to separate the film from the blaxploitation genre. The trailer pitched it as an every man story that can be enjoyed by blacks, whites, and even the greens.
1974 Trailer for Claudine:
Most of James Earl Jones’s movies were handled this way during the 1970s. Just enough was done to separate the films from the onslaught of blaxploitation films that seemed to get worse as the 70s moved on.
Claudine would be among the best non-action movies in blaxploitation history if it was only technically blaxploitation.
The movies of James Earl Jones are often lumped into the blaxploitation thing by mistake, and it’s easy to see how that mistake could be made .I’m glad this mistake gets made from time to time, because that’s how I found films like Claudine, The Man, and The Great White Hope.
That’s why we’re bending the rules a little bit this year, and including James Earl Jones, and his blaxploitation era films, in our 28 for 28 ode to the genre. While the films of Fred Williamson and Jim Brown were important to the industry because they proved there was a viable market for films featuring black actors, living in black communities, dealing with the issues that comes with it, by putting butts in seats and making money; it was movies like Claudine that elevated the game by proving black actors not named Sindey Poitier can be the lead in a film.
This made actors like James Earl Jones and Pam Grier, a good one-two punch in the fight to even the playing field in the entertainment industry.
Why We Love and Respect Him: For a man with a deep, booming voice, he was great at playing characters with traits one wouldn’t commonly associate with someone who has a voice like that. He was also Darth Vader, dammit.
Best Known For: Being the voice of Darth Vader and reading text messages/social media posts in commercials with Malcolm McDowell.
Pseudo-Blaxploitation Role Call:
The Man (1972) as Douglas Dilman: Senate President pro tempore Douglas Dilman becomes the nation’s first black president following a series of unfortunate events. The elected president and speaker of the house are killed when a building collapses. The sitting vice president declines to be sworn in as president, which constitutionally leaves the position open to the senate president. Dilman accepts the job and his experience is the storyline of the movie.
Claudine (1974) as Rupert Marshall: Claudine is a single mother whose family of six children survives on welfare and Claudine’s side jobs. She falls in love with a garbage man named Rupert. The relationship is complicated because Claudine will lose her welfare status if Marshall moves in.
The River Niger (1976) as Johnny Williams: Johnny is a poet whose wife is dying of cancer, and he must do what he can to support them while living and working in a poverty-stricken, economically-depressed community.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976) as Leon Carter: Bingo Long is sick of the treatment of the talent in baseball’s negro leagues, so he recruits several players and forms an exhibition team he takes on the road. Carter, a catcher, is among the best of the best, and becomes a star as the popularity of the exhibition team grows and cuts into negro-league game attendance numbers. The success of the exhibition team leads to a high-stakes baseball game with a team of negro league all-stars. If Bingo’s team wins, his team will be accepted into the league, if his team loses, all of the players on the exhibition team must return to their original negro league teams.
A Piece of the Action (1977) as Joshua Burke: James Earl Jones pairs up with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby for this one. Dave Anderson and Manny Durrell (Cosby and Poitier) are criminals who are blackmailed into working at a youth center by retired detective Joshua Burke. Things are great, until one more heist opportunity pops up.
He doesn’t talk about blaxploitation, but this is nice, short James Earl Jones interview with NPR. You do get to hear him talk about his stuttering problem as a young man.
In an interview with Pride Magazine in 2011, James Earl Jones answered a question about black actors today that gives some insight into why he was choosy about his roles, and what the future holds for black actors.
How do you think black actors are faring in Hollywood today? Do you think there’s still a glass ceiling in terms of quality of roles and variety?
I don’t have a clue. It’s not that I don’t care, but acting in the movie industry is an unusual form of employment. It requires an intricate confluence of elements: the right casting, the right writing, the right directing, all have to converge at the same time. There’ve been a couple of movie stories I have liked over the past couple of years, but the timing was never right. As far as ethnic performers are concerned, the opportunities are not only based on fate. When writers do more stories about ethnic life, or directors ignore ethnic lines and cast more freely, the field of work can broaden.